You have now finished Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler…
Hopefully, you enjoyed reading it, but maybe it wasn’t completely your speed. After all, the person who wrote the introduction did suggest that it was a neo-noir, and, while it was that in fits and starts, it was closer to a spy caper. Perhaps along the way, you grew tired of the starts and stops of the various novels that you would never get to finish. Maybe you were amused by the brutal murder of an old enemy while he was having sex with Bernadette. Or, maybe you were a little turned off by the erotic story where a college student having sex with his professor’s wife while her college-aged daughter watched and the professor watched the daughter watching. Either way, it was a short, breezy, and fast globe-trotting novel that took you from European history to the constant rebellions of South America and even to Japan.
I had a lot of fun re-reading this novel that does so much in this short amount of time. On one level, the novel is about the excitement of the new…and the futility of the excitement of the new that never reaches completion. On another, it’s a tear down of every competing theory of how best to read, appreciate, and understand a novel.
- Is it through authorial intent that we can learn meaning? No, because there are multiple layers between the author and the reader, and how do we even know that we’re reading the author’s work? It could be destroyed by interpreters, mucked with by agents, written by a computer in New York or Japan, or even transmitting secret code by ALIENS.
- Is it through academic studies that we can learn meaning? Academics are a competitive field where politics – both of the academic world and the government – and ego play an outsized role on interpretation and authority.
- Is it through readers’ solo interpretations that we can learn meaning? Again, Readers are capricious, shallow and silly and always bring their own baggage to the table. Whether they’re in reading circles, reading for pleasure or escapism, strapped in a chair to read for commercial viability, or reading to censor across multiple countries, they never reach consensus as to any one True Meaning.
Of course, you may disagree with all of that, or find that Italo Calvino is instead stripping away all of our interpretive abilities so that we can just read for the pleasure of reading. Here too lies the difficulty of writing about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler…: anything I write is simultaneously non-authoritative and still reflective of my own reality. But, then, what is reality anyways but our own construction of experiences? The final novel What story down there awaits its end? is the reflection of the earlier blackly comic revenge novel Looks down in the gathering shadow: in Gathering Shadow, the protagonist surrounds himself with a forest of history even as he chops down one of his trees, where in What Story, the protagonist is mentally removing ALL of his distractions to exist in a world of only him and his mission. Through this, we find that reality is what we experience, and what we struggle with is communication.
How does one communicate an idea, a sensation, an idea, or a reality? The so-called novels that we are reading aren’t necessarily novels, but are narrations of novels. Rather than being a stereotypical description of the story and events from a third-person omniscient, they frequently dive into sections of the author telling you about how you’re reading the novel and how the novel is giving you information. What is the relationship of the author and the reader? Even if Calvino offers up no precise answer, that question is still thrilling to ponder. Calvino has presented this question of this relationship as a kaleidoscopic puzzle box that he rolls around, tears apart, reassembles, and then lets it rest without actually providing a definitive answer.
Even though If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler… is a second person story, The Novel is antagonistic toward us, the reader. Even though the reader is a passive bystander in the story given by The Novel, The Novel challenges our decisions as if we have authority over the situation. Sometimes its little critiques of the way we approach The Other Reader, Ludmilla, but by Chapter 9, The Novel is breaking out into full blown moral panic at our “decision” to have sex with our captor who may or may not be Ludmilla’s sister. The reader is a passive reader but is also responsible for our decisions within the story.
However, The Novel is an authority figure and not to be trusted. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler… is, to me, a radically anti-authoritarian novel where Calvino strips down the authority of the author, the agent, the publisher, the interpreter, the reader, and the novel itself which frequently puts its own structure into the heads of the in-novel authors and readers. Calvino takes the idea of an unreliable narrator as a character and turns it into an unreliable novel exploring an unreliable system of oppression; oppression of the author, the novel, the reader, and society as a whole…all of which are unreliable.
If this were an academic paper, it would point to Italo Calvino’s political history of growing up under Mussolini and joining then rejecting the Communist Party before participating in France’s 1960s cultural revolutions as reasons for being anti-authoritarian, but that would also be academic and authorial in nature. So, we shan’t be doing any more of that.
We could look at the reflections and refractions of the in-novel novels and how they infect the Reader-themed chapters; and how those chapters are even destroyed by a dive into the diary of in-novel author Silas Flannery which many unreliable people have speculated reflects Calvino himself. Or, I could speak of how horny this novel gets, with characters humping everything in sight, changing stories and humping some more, until it explodes and we’re sitting coolly in our bed with our wife and novel/mistress. Or, maybe I could talk about all the different ways that reading happens: at home, in an office, in a library, a café, on a plane, on a train, in captivity, while being watched, etc.
But, we all know that anything I write here would seem authoritative, and being authoritative is against what this novel is about. I do hope you had fun with this goofy, breezy, frequently trashy, and altogether ridiculous novel that is simply about the act of reading. I had a lot of fun revisiting it.